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Jordan Peele and Henry Selick’s Stop-Motion Netflix Movie Beat Even My High Expectations

4 out of 5 cassette tapes.

Kat and Raú from Wendell & Wild. lmage: Netflix.

Directed by Henry Selick and co-written by Jordan Peele, Wendell & Wild is a stop-motion animated film released by Netflix on October 28, 2022. This marked Peele’s first venture into animation and Selick’s first anything since his 2009 adaption of Neil Gaiman‘s novel Coraline. It follows the loner child and part of the juvenile detention system, Kat (played by Lyric Ross), as she makes a deal with the trickster devils Wendell (Keegan-Michael Key) and Wild (Peele), whom she has a connection with.

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Without spilling too much more of the story, I can say that there is a fair amount of deals made and promises of reincarnation. In addition to the aforementioned voice talent, the cast includes Angela Bassett, James Hong, Sam Zelaya, Ving Rhames, Tamara Valerie Smart, and many more. In most ways, considering Selick and Peele are at the helm, this film met and exceeded my high expectations.

Bringing the story to life

In many ways, Kat is an atypical heroine, except instead of sadness in her story, she rebels and is tenacious. The punk look isn’t given to her just because those afro-puffs and boots look amazing but because she’s exerting autonomy in any way she can due to her circumstances. This manifests in her attitude, as she’s not the most reasonable character. However, Kat’s also 13 and has not lived a stable life since she was eight, so empathy is vital to understanding her. She represents one of many kids in similar situations.

Most of the characters feel fleshed out design-wise in relation to their role in the story, especially her new classmates like Siobahn and Raúl. Wendell & Wild, who together play out as competing protagonists to Kat, recapture that dynamic they had from Key and Peele. They’re silly, motivated, and play opposites to one another. The big, bad villains and their motivation feel just over the top enough for some fun character design work and jabs at contemporary politicians in the U.S. and the U.K. While they act as the clear antagonists, many people who support them for survival and greed are not left unexamined.

Wendell & Wild. lmage: Netflix.

Selick and his army of artists were able to do something special in capturing many of these characters. While there was a fair amount of completely original designs, people like Kat, Wendell, Wild, and Father Bests (Hong) were caricatured in a respectful and still totally imaginative way that blended seamlessly into the world. This is kind of expected in all art. However, it’s something that isn’t the case when showing characters of color in any respect—regardless of artistic medium.

In a behind-the-scenes video, Selick revealed he reached out to incredible caricature artist Pablo Lobato. This collaboration with 2D artists definitely came through in a few scenes and help separate the living and the dead in the film without relying on a color palette shift. With some other characters that were once human and now dead, Wendell & Wild accent these primary shapes that feel very childlike. Also, the forms are literally more deconstructed, like the bodies break down when decomposing. These were just two of many little details beyond the texture and lighting within the film that you can see in the trailer.

Despite what it looks like in the trailer, this film does epic things with scale. They employ seamless 360 shoots, and the characters range in various distinct sizes from small (Wendell & Wild) to medium (the human) and epic (Buffalo Belzer). The practical camera tricks (and the help of video editing) often make this look seamless. However, sometimes it’s jarring for dramatic effect. A combination of these factors (and the music) help build this desolate and dying town that feels like it’s on its last leg.

One running issue

Structurally, this film has an issue with pacing. Most of the time, this is an issue of a lull in a film. However, in Wendell & Wild, it’s just too fast. There are two main narratives, plus at least four subplots that vary in how connected they are. All at least get set up and resolved, but there’s no sitting with any beyond two main stories. Even with Kat, sometimes, there are moments lacking. What’s extra frustrating is that all six-plus of these are extremely interesting. It has me wondering if this would make a better mini-series or just combine elements and add another 10 to 15 minutes to the 105-minute run-time.

Sister Helley and Manberg in Wendell & Wild. Image: Netflix.

One of the subplots involves Sister Helley (Bassett) and Manberg (Igal Naor), which was so quickly dumped into the story that even if you catch what their deal is, it teeters on antisemitic when zoomed out near the end and linked to Wendell & Wild’s background. Because Helley/Manberg’s narrative is ultimately linked to Kat, the film avoids falling into tropes. Helley/Manberg could’ve been one character, ultimately, and still worked in the story. This is just one idea for one issue that presented itself across many of the characters. Overall, there was still an issue of very little breathing room to make the emotional payoffs at the end mean something.

Speaking of the end, I don’t want to spoil exactly what happens. However, I can say, for the larger themes of this story, the ending was quite unimaginative regarding our main villains. To touch on corporate greed, the school-to-prison pipeline, for-profit prisons, regional economic collapse, legacy, and more, just to have the cops show up for a few frames, was very tonally and thematically jarring. I get it’s a kids’ film, but it feels like massive departure to end on.

Still a fun time

Wendell & Wild is an absolute delight and something great to rewatch again and again—maybe even add it in as a staple in your Halloween queue. Those visually stimulated will find little details they missed before, and those more interested in how the story is told will find aspects of it to ponder with each revisit.

Despite loving stop-motion animation, there is so little of it out there that both came out in the last 20 years and features a diverse cast, let alone a majority non-white cast like Wendell & Wild. In claymation (which features similar issues), it’s worse. Don’t get me wrong, I love my anti-capitalist fave, Chicken Run, inventive The Lego Movie, and James and The Giant Peach. However, this points to the plethora of visual and story avenues one can take when the story is as imaginative as the cast.

If this is Selick at his happiest (which it seems so, based on interviews), I want more of this, and adding collaborators like Peele is just a plus. Most of all, I want Netflix to promote the work of projects both online and within the app so that a person doesn’t have to stumble into the film by typing in “wen” to ensure I get this film in the search results.

(featured image: Netflix)

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Alyssa Shotwell
(she/her) Award-winning artist and writer with professional experience and education in graphic design, art history, and museum studies. She began her career in journalism in October 2017 when she joined her student newspaper as the Online Editor. This resident of the yeeHaw land spends most of her time drawing, reading and playing the same handful of video games—even as the playtime on Steam reaches the quadruple digits. Currently playing: Baldur's Gate 3 & Oxygen Not Included.

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